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Programming language: Elixir
License: MIT License
Latest version: v0.5.1

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Ratatouille is a declarative terminal UI kit for Elixir for building rich text-based terminal applications similar to how you write HTML.

It builds on top of the termbox API (using the Elixir bindings from ex_termbox).

For the API Reference, see: https://hexdocs.pm/ratatouille.

Toby Toby, a terminal-based Erlang observer built with Ratatouille

Table of Contents

Getting Started

Ratatouille implements The Elm Architecture (TEA) as a way to structure application logic. This fits quite naturally in Elixir and is part of what makes Ratatouille declarative. If you've already used TEA on the web, this should feel very familiar.

As with a GenServer definition, Ratatouille apps only implement a behaviour by defining callbacks and don't know how to start or run themselves. It's the application runtime that handles all of those (sometimes tricky) details.

Building an Application

Let's build a simple application that displays an integer counter which can be incremented when the user presses + and decremented when the user presses -.

First a quick clarification, since we're using the word "application" a lot. For our purposes, an application is a terminal application, and not necessarily an OTP application, but your terminal application could also be an OTP application. We'll cover that in Packaging and Distributing Applications below.

Back to the counter app. First we'll look at the entire example, then we'll go through it line by line to see what each line does. You can also find this example in the repo and run it with mix run.

# examples/counter.exs

defmodule Counter do
  @behaviour Ratatouille.App

  import Ratatouille.View

  def init(_context), do: 0

  def update(model, msg) do
    case msg do
      {:event, %{ch: ?+}} -> model + 1
      {:event, %{ch: ?-}} -> model - 1
      _ -> model

  def render(model) do
    view do
      label(content: "Counter is #{model} (+/-)")


At the top, we define a new module (Counter) for the app and we inform Elixir that it will implement the Ratatouille.App behaviour. This just ensures we're warned if we forget to implement a callback and serves as documentation that this is a Ratatouille app.

defmodule Counter do
  @behaviour Ratatouille.App

  # ...

Next, we import the View DSL from Ratatouille.View:

import Ratatouille.View

The View DSL provides element builder functions like view, row, table, label that you can use to define views. Think of them like HTML tags.


The init/1 callback defines the initial model. "Model" is the Elm architecture's term for what we often call "state" in Elixir/Erlang. As with a GenServer, the state (our model) will later be passed to callbacks when things happen in order to allow the app to update it.

The model can be any Erlang term. For larger apps, it's helpful to use maps or structs to organize different pieces of the state. Here, we just have an integer counter, so we return 0 as our initial model:

defmodule Counter do
  # ...

  def init(_context), do: 0

  # ...

The update/2 callback defines how to transform the model when a particular message is received. Ratatouille's runtime will automatically call update/2 when terminal events occur (pressing a key, resizing the window, clicking the mouse, etc.). We can also send ourselves messages via subscriptions and commands.

Here, we'd like to increment the counter when we get a ?+ key press and decrement it when get a ?-. Event messages are based on the underlying termbox events and characters are given as code points (e.g., ?a is 97).

defmodule Counter do
  # ...

  def update(model, msg) do
    case msg do
      {:event, %{ch: ?+}} -> model + 1
      {:event, %{ch: ?-}} -> model - 1
      _ -> model

  # ...

It's a good idea to provide a fallback clause in case we don't know how to handle a message. This way the app won't crash if the user presses a key that the app doesn't handle. But if things stop working as you expect, try removing the fallback to see if important messages are going unmatched.


The render/1 callback defines a view to display the model. The runtime will call it as needed when it needs to update the terminal window.

Like an HTML document, a view is defined as a tree of elements (nodes). Elements have attributes (e.g., text: bold) and children (nested content). While helper functions can return arbitrary element trees, the render/1 callback must return a view tree starting with a root view element---it's sort of like the <body> tag in HTML.

defmodule Counter do
  # ...

  def render(model) do
    view do
      label(content: "Counter is #{model} (+/-)")

  # ...
Running it

There's a final and very important line at the bottom:


This starts the application runtime with our app definition. Options can be passed as a second argument. This is an easy way to run simple apps. For more complicated ones, it's recommended to define an OTP application.

That's it---now you can run the program with mix run <file>. To run the bundled example:

$ mix run examples/counter.exs

You should see the counter we defined, be able to make changes to it with + and -, and be able to quit using q.


Ratatouille's views are trees of elements similar to HTML in structure. For example, here's how to define a two-column layout:

view do
  row do
    column size: 6 do
      panel title: "Left Column" do
        label(content: "Text on the left")

    column size: 6 do
      panel title: "Right Column" do
        label(content: "Text on the right")


As you might have noticed, Ratatouille provides a small DSL on top of Elixir for defining views. These are functions and macros which accept attributes and/or child elements in different formats. For example, a column element can be defined in all of the following ways:


column(size: 12)

column do
  # ... child elements ...

column size: 12 do
  # ... child elements ...

All of these evaluate to a %Ratatouille.Renderer.Element{tag: :column} struct. The macros provide syntactic sugar, but under the hood it's all structs.

Here's a list of all the elements provided by Ratatouille.View:

Element Description
bar Block-level element for creating title, status or menu bars
canvas A free-form canvas for drawing arbitrary shapes
canvas_cell A canvas cell which represents one square of the canvas
chart Element for plotting a series as a multi-line chart
column Container occupying a vertical segment of the grid
label Block-level element for displaying text
overlay Container overlaid on top of the view
panel Container with a border and title used to demarcate content
row Container used to define grid layouts with one or more columns
sparkline Element for plotting a series in a single line
table Container for displaying data in rows and columns
table_cell Element representing a table cell
table_row Container representing a row of the table
text Inline element for displaying uniformly-styled text
tree Container for displaying data as a tree of nodes
tree_node Container representing a tree node
view Top-level container

Adding Logic

Because it's just Elixir code, you can freely mix in Elixir syntax and abstract views using functions:

label(content: a_variable)

view do
  case current_tab do
    :one -> render_tab_one()
    :two -> render_tab_two()
if window.width > 80 do
  row do
    column(size: 6)
    column(size: 6)
  row do
    column(size: 12)


Attributes are used to style text and other content:

# Labels are block-level, so this makes text within the whole block red.
label(content: "Red text", color: :red)

# Nested inline text elements can be used to style differently within a label.
label do
  text(content: "R", color: :red)
  text(content: "G", color: :green)
  text(content: "B", color: :blue)

# `color` sets the foreground, while `background` sets the background.
label(content: "Black on white", color: :black, background: :white)

# `attributes` accepts a list of text attributes, here `:bold` and `:underline`.
label(content: "Bold and underlined text", attributes: [:bold, :underline])

Styling is still being developed, so it's not currently possible to style every aspect of every element, but this will improve with time.

Views are Strict

Most web browsers will happily try to make sense of any HTML you give them. For example, you can put a td directly under a div and the content will likely still be rendered.

Ratatouille takes a different, more strict approach and first validates that the view tree is well-structured. If it's not valid, an error is raised explaining the problem. This is intended to provide quick feedback when something's wrong. Restricting the set of valid views also helps to simplify the rendering implementation.

It's helpful to keep the following things in mind when defining views:

  • Each tag has a list of allowed child tags. For example, a row may only have elements with the column tag as direct descendants.
  • Each tag has a list of attributes. Some attributes are required, and these must be set. Optional attributes have some default behavior when unset. It's not allowed to set an attribute that's not in the list.
  • A view element must be the root element of any view tree you'd like to render.

See the list of elements above for documentation on each element.

Example Applications

The following examples show off different aspects of the framework:

Name Description
rendering.exs A rendering demo of all the supported elements
counter.exs How to create a simple app with state and updates
editor.exs How to use receive and display user input
multiple_views.exs How to render different views/tabs based on a selection
subscriptions.exs How to subscribe to multiple intervals
commands.exs How to run commands asynchronously and receive the results
snake.exs How to make a simple game
documentation_browser.exs How to render and scroll multiline content

With the repository cloned locally, run an example with mix run examples/<example>.exs. Examples can be quit with q or CTRL-c (unless indicated otherwise).

Under the Hood

The application runtime abstracts away many of the details concerning how the terminal window is updated and how events are received. If you're interested in how these things actually work, or if the runtime doesn't support your use case, see this guide:


Packaging and Distributing

Warning: This part is still rough around the edges.

While it's easy to run apps while developing with mix run, packaging them for others to easily run is a bit more complicated. Depending on the type of app you're building, it might not be reasonable to assume that users have any Elixir or Erlang tools installed. Terminal apps are usually distributed as binary executables so that they can just be run as such without additional dependencies. Fortunately, this is possible using OTP releases that bundle ERTS.

Defining an OTP Application

In order to create an OTP release, we first need to define an OTP application that runs the terminal application. Ratatouille.Runtime.Supervisor takes care of starting all the necessary runtime components, so we start this supervisor under the OTP application supervisor and pass it a Ratatouille app definition (along with any other runtime configuration).

For example, the OTP application for toby looks like this:

defmodule Toby do
  use Application

  def start(_type, _args) do
    children = [
      {Ratatouille.Runtime.Supervisor, runtime: [app: Toby.App]},
      # other workers...

      strategy: :one_for_one,
      name: Toby.Supervisor

Executable Releases with Distillery

We'll use Distillery to create the OTP release, as it can even create distributable, self-contained executables. Releases built on a given architecture can generally be run on machines of the same architecture.

Follow the Distillery guide to generate a release configuration:


In order to make a "batteries-included" release, it's important that you have include_erts set to true:

environment :prod do
  # ...
  set(include_erts: true)
  # ...

Now it's possible to generate the release:

MIX_ENV=prod mix release --executable --transient

This creates a Distillery release that bundles the Erlang runtime and the application. Start it in the foreground, e.g.:

_build/prod/rel/toby/bin/toby.run foreground

You can also move this executable somewhere else (e.g., to a directory in your $PATH). A current caveat is that it must be able to unpack itself, as Distillery executables are self-extracting archives.

Projects using Ratatouille

For inspiration or ideas on how to structure your application, check out this list of projects built with Ratatouille:

  • tefter/cli - the command-line client for Tefter
  • toby - a terminal-based Erlang observer

If you have a project you'd like to include here, just open a PR to add it to the list.


From Hex

Add Ratatouille as a dependency in your project's mix.exs:

def deps do
    {:ratatouille, "~> 0.5.0"}

From Source

To try out the master branch, first clone the repo:

git clone https://github.com/ndreynolds/ratatouille.git
cd ratatouille

Next, fetch the deps:

mix deps.get

Finally, try out one of the included examples/:

mix run examples/rendering.exs

If you see lots of things drawn on your terminal screen, you're good to go. Use "q" to quit in the examples (unless otherwise specified).


  • Apps
    • [x] Application Runtime
    • [x] Subscriptions
    • [x] Commands
  • Views / Rendering
    • [x] Rendering engine with basic elements
    • [ ] More configurable charts (axis label, color, multiple lines, etc.)
    • [ ] Uniform support for text styling (incl. inheritance)
    • [x] Automatic translation to termbox styling constants
    • For example, color: :red instead of color: Constants.color(:red).
    • [ ] Rendering optimizations (view diffing, more efficient updates, etc.)
  • Events
    • [ ] Translate termbox events to a cleaner format
    • Dealing with the integer constants is inconvenient. These could be converted to atoms by the event manager.
  • Terminal Backend
    • [x] ex_termbox NIFs
    • [ ] Alternative port-based termbox backend
  • Customization
    • [ ] Registering custom element renderers
    • This would support using custom elements (e.g. my_table()) that are defined outside of the core library.


Contributions are much appreciated. They don't necessarily have to come in the form of code, I'm also very thankful for bug reports, documentation improvements, questions, and suggestions.

Running the Tests

Run the unit tests as usual:

mix test

Ratatouille also includes integration tests of the bundled examples. These aren't included in the default suite because they actually run the example apps. The integration suite can be run like so:

mix test --only integration